Body language goes a long way when training dogs
Special to the Sun
A couple of months ago, I was driving home from Reno and saw a dog running along the median of the highway. In a state of panic, I quickly pulled over to the shoulder, wondering what on earth I was going to do next.
Trucks and cars were speeding by and I didn’t want the dog to run into traffic. At that moment, I remembered reading an article by acclaimed behavioralist, Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., about an encounter in which she used her body language to communicate with a dog trapped in a similar situation.
I needed to keep the dog from moving away from the median until there was a break in the traffic. I moved toward the dog with my arms out when cars were coming to put pressure on him to back up, and as soon as there was a break, I “called” him with my body by mimicking a play-bow and turning my body to encourage him to run to me.
After several tries (and some very good luck), the dog made it across the road and came close enough that I could catch him.
Skilled animal trainers know that moving their body in subtle ways communicates more than words ever can. Most dog owners have no idea what they “say” to their dogs using body language.
Standing up straight instead of bending over can determine whether your dog will sit when asked. Leaning forward or back by less than a inch can result in your dog running from you or happily following.
When a dog jumps and the person steps back, it encourages the dog forward. Holding your breath around a frightened dog may just get you bit.
Dr. McConnell and her research assistants performed a test to see if dogs responded better to visual (e.g. hand and body signals) or auditory cues when learning a simple sit cue.
They used six-week-old puppies to ensure no previous training. The pups heard a soft “beep” from a watch at the same time they raised their hand above the pup’s head in a typical sit lure.
After four days, they gave only one of the cues at a time. Over 90 percent of the pups responded better to the upward hand motion than to the beep sound.
I see similar results in training classes every day, and to drive the point home, I conduct one class in each six-week session, in which we teach with minimal verbal cues.
Even the rowdiest class of adolescent dogs noticeably calms down when people stop talking so much. Dogs learn more when we say less.
Conduct your own experiment at home. Try to make it through an entire day using only non-verbal communication with your dog. You may notice that you always do certain things with your hands or head.
If you stop doing those things and just give a verbal cue, it is likely the dog won’t perform the requested behavior.
My encounter with the dog on the highway had a happy ending. His name was Oscar and luckily he had a legible dog tag.
I was able to contact the owner who was traveling in an RV and had stopped briefly when a truck horn scared Oscar and he fled.
Carla Brown, CPDT, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. She can be reached at email@example.com.